Howdy Doody hangs out with Barbie. Chewbacca bonds with Big Bird, and robots, race cars and rockets recall the sci-fi craze of the 1950s.
With more than a century's worth of top toys colorfully filling Memory Lane display cases, a walk through Lark Toys in Kellogg, Minn., offers a sweet nostalgic romp through Christmases past. Visitors excitedly point out favorites, exclaiming, "Oh, I had one of those!" while cueing visions of tinseled trees, footie pajamas and toddlers running living room laps.
Part free museum, part Santa's Workshop, Lark Toys provides a Minnesota outpost of the North Pole. Its 20,000-square-foot mini-mall meanders and takes visitors past a bookstore, the impressive main toy shop, a comical curiosity shop, and an ice cream and fudge café before reaching what Lark founder Donn Kreofsky called "the largest toy I could make" -- a stunning handcrafted carousel that alone could be worth the road trip.
Every half-hour, it twirls to life with kids and adults bee-lining for their favorite creatures. The favorites? A deer with real antlers and a dragon with a bearded wizard on its back, says Miranda Gray-Burlingame, who owns Lark Toys with her parents and husband. Kids grin from atop Minnesota-inspired animals, including a bison with an eagle on its back or a trumpeter swan in flight.
Between carousel rides, kids seek out hands-on areas to put on a puppet show, dress up in costumes, pose in front of funhouse mirrors, commandeer the train table, or dig through bins of toy animals and fantasy figures and test out musical instruments.
Lark also makes its own line of wooden toys and puzzles that originally inspired the business. "They tend to be heirloom toys that get passed down," Gray-Burlingame says, and visitors may be able to glimpse toymakers at work through an observation window.
Whether you prefer bright new toys or well-loved dolls and games, they blend nicely at this intersection of Christmases past, present and future.
WHY GO NOW
Besides having a one-stop shopping destination for kids on your holiday list, families can meet and pose with Santa and Mrs. Claus next weekend, Dec. 8-9, at Lark Toys (1-507-767-3387; www.larktoys.com). Preschoolers who visit the morning of Dec. 14 can join holiday activities and take a free ride on the carousel, which has been running for 15 years. Rides are $2, free for anyone under 3 riding with an adult.
WHAT ELSE TO DO
Stroll downtown: In nearby historic downtown Wabasha, you'll find some interesting shops, including Jewels on the River (1-651-565-4776; www. jewelsontheriver.com), with freshwater pearl jewelry and local artwork, and Wind Whisper West (1-651-565-2002; www.windwhisperwest.com), a Japanese textile and art gallery with hand-painted and embroidered silk kimonos. It's the biggest seller of wedding kimonos in the United States.
Hit the hills: Enjoy sweeping views of the Mississippi River Valley from Coffee Mill Ski Area (1-651-565-2777; www.coffeemillski.com). Less crowded than Twin Cities ski hills and more affordable than most, these runs feature 425 feet of vertical drop and three terrain parks. Open Wednesday through Sunday.
Join the grumps: As the setting of the Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon "Grumpy Old Men" movies, Wabasha celebrates its 20th Grumpy Old Men Festival on Feb. 23. You can eat at Slippery's (made famous in the movies), join an ice-fishing contest, watch a pet pageant and jump into Minnesota's frigid waters.
Watch for eagles: With leaves off the trees, winter is the best time to watch for bald eagles along the Mississippi River. Learn about the raptor's history and cultural significance and pose with an eagle at the National Eagle Center. Hands-on activities such as crayon rubbings, scavenger hunts and one that lets kids feel the weight difference between a cat and an eagle make it a family-friendly destination.
The eagle center will host special events the first three weekends of March during its annual Soar With the Eagles festival. That month also is peak time for eagle watching as they migrate up the Mississippi flyway. Visitors can use spotting scopes on the observation deck or take their cues from the center's resident eagles, who loudly let you know when they spot a wild eagle flying too close to their turf. Eagle programs are presented three times a day (1-651-565-4989; www.nationaleaglecenter.org).
When the weather turns: You can paddle the backwaters of the Mississippi with guides from Turning Waters Bed, Breakfast and Adventure (1-651-564-1568; turningwatersbandb.com). Warm temps also mean Lark Toys' mini-golf with waterfalls will be flowing again, and its resident miniature llamas will be grazing out back.
WHERE TO STAY
AmericInn Wabasha (150 Commerce Dr.; 1-651-565-5366; rooms from $90) has a suite inspired by the Lark Carousel with an otter carved into the headboard and other playful touches. It's one of 14 themed suites that represent Wabasha, including one with kimono art from Wind Whisper West and a Fisherman's Suite with décor from Loon Lake Decoy Company. The 64 rooms include hot breakfast.
The historic 1856 Anderson House (333 Main St.; 1-651-565-3509; rooms from $79) reopened its 22 old-style Victorian rooms in February. They don't have the resident cats that made this Wabasha icon famous, but you can get breakfast. On December weekends, the hotel hosts craft demonstrations, sessions on Victorian etiquette and will sell local artwork. The owner also rents downtown lofts and riverside condos in Wabasha.
WHERE TO EAT
Call it a field trip with Chocolate Escape's 70-foot-long mural that shows the history of chocolate and how it's made (1-651-565-0035; www.thechocolateescape.com). Make sure to try specialties such as sea turtles with salt or snapping turtles with a kick of espresso. It's connected to Flour Mill Pizzeria (1-651-560-4170), where you can sit near a cozy fireplace or on the deck overlooking the river. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Contact the Wabasha-Kellogg Area Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-565-4158; www.wabashamn.org.
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote "Day Trips From the Twin Cities" guidebook and the "Minnesota Lake Vacations" travel app.